Ajax has won its first match of the round of thirty-two of the UEFA Europa League against Legia Warsaw, 1-0. Polish Ajax player Arek Milik was the match winner on Thursday evening in the Amsterdam ArenA. In addition to the Milik’s killer instinct, keeper Jasper Cillessen’s unflappable and superior keeping skills were worth gold.
With the narrow but good victory over Poland’s national champion, Ajax can feel confident for the return match in Poland. Legia will host the Amsterdam team next week. After three lost Europa League matches (twice to FC Salzburg and one to Steaua Bucharest in 2013) Ajax was able to win their match in this second European club tournament. For Ajax, a draw in next week’s match will be sufficient to earn a spot in the round of sixteen. The fact that Ajax will need to go deep was clear from the amazing way in which the match unfolded.
Ajax – Legia Warsaw turned out to be a tactical clash on Thursday evening between coaches Frank de Boer and Henning Berg. It was offensive and creative versus defensive and (mostly) focused on prevention. The former top players were once team mates with the Glasgow Rangers.
But that’s where the similarities between Berg and De Boer ended. Fortunately, for the 46.000 spectators in the ArenA, Berg let his defensive tactic go somewhat after the break.
The 100-time Norwegian international didn’t hesitate to set up a defensive wall consisting of five men in the first half. The challenge lay with the Amsterdam team to get past this defensive wall. Upcoming wing backs Nicolai Boilesen and Ricardo van Rhijn (who had been a question mark beforehand, but managed to play with pain killers) did their part to apply pressure. Just like they did against FC Twente, wing forwards Anwar El Ghazi and Ricardo Kishna were, at times, insistent and dangerous. Arek Milik took over the centre forward honours from Lasse Schöne.
The Dane was still Ajax starting centre forward for last weekend’s match against FC Twente. Schöne found himself, somewhat surprisingly, relegated to the bench. Niklas Moisander was also left out of De Boer’s starting eleven. As the Europa League match was too soon for the injured Joël Veltman (hamstring), Mike van der Hoorn and Nick Viergever formed the Amsterdam team’s defensive heart. Thulani Serero returned as controlling midfielder after having been out due to injury.
Milik repaid De Boer’s confidence in him after 35 minutes, with interest. The Polish player sent a precise, pivoting shot cleanly into the corner, out of Dusan Kuciak’s reach. Ajax thus got the reward that they – certainly in the first half – had earned; it was the Amsterdam team who were making a real match of it. In the first half hour, a shot from youngster Riechedly Bazoer just skirted past the outside of the post. The teenager played with the flair, power and football smarts of a veteran. Legia didn’t make much more of an impact in the first half, only a shot from Michal Zyro. The attempt was easy for Jasper Cillessen to tame.
Down one goal, Legia showed a different face after the break. Berg moved a defensive pawn to midfield. Moreover, centre forward Orlando Sá found his team mates Zyro and Michal Kucharczyk more frequently by his side than before the break. The offensive strategy seemed to pay off quickly. Seven minutes into the second half, Sá appeared in front of Cillessen.
The keeper made the save and yet another one soon after on a close-range shot from Guilherme. Zyro completed the Polish trio with a wild shot over the Ajax goal.
Cillessen remained the home team’s savior. The Groesbeek native, with his great reflexes, made yet another save on an attempt from Sá. Five minutes further into the EL duel, Cillessen once again faced a hard shot from the physically strong Sá. The power had definitely shifted compared to the first half. Between Cillessen’s saves ((the keeper was rightfully named Man of the Match) Serero also neutralized a Polish scoring opportunity. The South African successfully blocked a shot from Maslowski.
Far into the second half, Ajax answered with a sporadic Davy Klaassen opportunity. El Ghazi saw his sharp attempt sent anxiously over the goal by Lukasz Broz. With substitutes Jairo Riedewald (for Serero), Schöne (for Kishna) and Sinkgraven (Klaassen) De Boer hoped to give his team a new impulse. With an eye on the return match next week in Warsaw, the lead needed to be defended. An extra goal would make the trip to Poland even more comfortable.
But unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Ajax struggled a bit after halftime, but didn’t bow down to the Elstraklasa’s leader. Ajax holds the cards for its own continuation in the UEFA Europa League in next week’s match. The Amstedam team can’t rest assured of a good result next week, though. “It’s going to be a hell of a fight”, warned De Boer after the win against Legia.